Department of Biological Sciences

All PhD candidates within the Department of Biological Sciences must successfully complete a Comprehensive Examination no sooner than 12 months but no later than 18 months from the starting date of their enrolment in the PhD graduate program. The exam is comprised of both a written and oral component and will assess: 1) the candidates general biological knowledge; 2) the candidate’s depth of understanding in subjects related to his or her research area; and 3) the ability of the candidate to express and defend his/her ideas in a logical and coherent manner both orally and in writing. For PhD candidates with cross-disciplinary programs of study, the expected knowledge base may extend to other areas beyond the conventional boundaries of the biological sciences.

The Comprehensive Examination Committee will be composed of a Chair, recommended by, but not on, the Supervisory committee and appointed by the Faculty of Graduate Studies, two members of the candidate’s PhD Supervisory Committee, and one additional member of SGS with appropriate expertise, who is not on the PhD Supervisory committee. The chair will select the Examination Committee members. Neither of the two Supervisory Committee members may be the candidate’s primary research supervisor, nor, in the case of students who are co-supervised, may either be a co-supervisor.  The committee members should represent a broad range of expertise in the life sciences.  The PhD Supervisory Committee will be required to approve the final selected Comprehensive Examination Committee members. The dates for the written and oral component of the examination are set by the Comprehensive Examination Committee.

The Comprehensive Examination Committee will identify 3 general areas of the life sciences that are not directly part of the candidate’s doctoral research project. Each committee member, excluding the chair, is responsible for an assigned general area and will provide a set of at least 3 different questions, at least one of which is suitable for a substantive essay, within that area. The committee will select one essay question from each area. Four weeks before the written examination, the student and all members of the Comprehensive Examination committee will be provided with a written document giving the three general areas and the assigned questions within each area with the essay questions identified.  From the identified essay questions, the student will choose one to prepare for a substantive written essay.  The questions from the other areas will be used for the written exam. The student will be given 4 weeks in which to prepare for the written and oral examination of their knowledge in these areas.


Examination Component:


Written Component

  • The candidate will prepare a substantive critical essay on one topic area, as well as sit for a 3 hour written exam.  The candidate will submit the essay portion on the day of the written exam, which will be 4 weeks after receiving the above information.
  • The written exam will be 3 hours in duration. The exam will contain a random sample of questions chosen by the chair from the assigned questions, including an equal weighting of questions from each of the 3 general areas. 
  • The Chair will distribute copies of the submitted essay and the written exam to all Committee members.

Oral Component

  • Within a period of two weeks following the written exam, the student will be examined orally by the committee on his/her written answers as well as on additional questions that were provided to the student but were not included on the written exam.
  • The student will also be examined more generally in the selected 3 areas of biology or on any general knowledge within the biological sciences.
  • The oral exam will be a maximum of two hours in duration and will be closed to the public. 
  • The student’s supervisor may attend as an observer, and must be available for consultation during the Committee’s deliberations following the exam


The assigned grade will be either a pass or fail. Immediately after the oral component has been completed, the student will be asked to leave the examination room. The committee will then deliberate to discuss both the oral and written components of the exam and will assign a final pass/fail grade for each. In cases where a unanimous decision regarding the grade is not immediately reached, the examining committee members will then vote and the majority of votes will decide the grade. Following this deliberation, the student will be asked to return to the examination room and will be informed of his/her grade.  The exam committee is encouraged to identify outstanding performance on the examination.

In the event of a failure, the student must be provided, within one week of the exam, with a written assessment explaining the basis for the failure, prepared by the members of the exam committee.

A student may take the exam up to two times. The second attempt must be completed within 3 months of the first attempt.  On the second examination attempt, the Dean of Graduate Studies or designate should be in attendance

If a student fails the second attempt they must withdraw from the PhD program. The supervisory committee may consider recommending that the student’s project be completed for consideration at the Master’s level.